Unpaid College Tuition Bills Rise, Survey Finds

For students struggling with tuition bills, a few tips can make the spring semester possible.

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Colleges and universities are seeing more students unable to pay their second-semester bills and in danger of being forced to drop out, according to a survey by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. More than 65 percent of the 43 college registrars who responded to an association-wide E-mail survey said that they had noticed an increase in unpaid bills this year. Most colleges don't let students register for a new semester until they have at least paid their bills for the previous semester.

For some schools, such as Spelman College in Atlanta, the unpaid bills are climbing to unprecedented levels. In a letter to alumni asking for donations late last year, Spelman President Beverly Tatum said a record-breaking 500 students—almost a quarter of the student body—were so far behind in their bills that they might not be able to register for second-semester classes. The average unpaid bill was about $3,000, she said.

Although the fundraising plea raised almost $200,000, paying off the debts of more than 40 students, the number of students with unpaid bills before the start of next week's second semester is almost double last year's, says Arlene Cash, Spelman's vice president for enrollment management. "It is rough," she says. Spelman is hoping more donors will step forward to allow more students to finish their degrees.

Other colleges are scrambling to help students find every penny of federal and state aid available. Iris Godes, vice president of enrollment management at Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester, Mass., says many of her low-income students tried to avoid taking out student loans last semester but have run out of money. She's now helping them fill out last year's Free Application for Federal Student Aid so that they can get retroactive grants and loans for last fall, as well as money for the spring semester.

Godes worries that some students will wait too long to ask for help. "They have been in denial. They are hoping for a miracle," she says. "They keep waiting until there is nothing left to do."

Other colleges are relaxing bill payment rules and deadlines. Brown University in Providence, R.I., used to kick off campus students who owed more than $5,000 for the previous term. The Ivy League school told parents late last year that, because of the economic troubles, it would raise that trigger to $7,500.

College officials advise those whose unpaid college bills threaten their ability to continue their education to:

  • Call the registrar's office. Some colleges, like Brown, are being increasingly flexible. Many colleges offer payment plans so you don't have to pay everything in one big lump. And some have emergency loan funds.
    • Call the college's financial aid office now. Many schools, like Spelman, are raising funds specifically to help students who have been wiped out in the recession. But funding is limited, so late applicants may find the cupboard bare.
      • Appeal for a "PJR ." Students having trouble paying bills because they or their parents lost a job or had some other emergency can ask the financial aid office for a "professional judgment review." Colleges can increase aid to address such emergencies.
        • Fill out last year's FAFSA: It is not too late to fill out the 2008-09 Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Colleges are allowed to retroactively award grants and low-cost loans to those who would have qualified last fall. At the very least, you'll probably qualify for a federal student loan that can tide you over for this semester.
          • Cut back: Students can also free up cash by cutting out indulgences such as cars and expensive cellphones. Those who still can't afford to pay the full bill for next semester should consider scraping together enough money to take at least one or two classes, thus "keeping engaged, academically," as Spelman's Cash puts it. "Cutting back is better than totally stopping," she says.
            • Get creative: Web scholarship searches are fine, but, as one foreclosed family discovered, networking and asking family for help can be better ways to raise college cash.